Phillip W. Magness

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  • April 2021
    M T W T F S S
  • Was Abolitionism a Free-Market Triumph?

    Posted By on August 10, 2020

    Template:Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840 - Wikipedia

    The Economic Historian blog has a fascinating discussion at the moment on the “New History of Capitalism” (NHC) school of historiography, and its attempts to grapple with the economic dimensions of slavery. I’ve been extremely critical of the NHC literature on account of its anti-capitalist ideological skew and its misuse of historical evidence, most recently on display in an essay by Matthew Desmond for the New York Times’s 1619 Project.

    The Economic Historian blog series makes a conscientious effort to engage this literature with a critical eye, although with an aim of bridging its approach with economic history. This is most apparent in an extended interview with UC-Berkeley professor Caitlin Rosenthal, a historian who sometimes associates with the NHC camp but also works in more traditional topics from economic history.

    The whole interview is worth a read, although one passage in particular struck me as being on very shaky historical footing. Asked about the opportunity for dialogue between economists and historians over the much-contested definition of “capitalism,” Rosenthal answered:

    I go into much more detail about the slippery politics of the word “capitalism” in my article, but one thing that I particularly push against is reducing capitalism to markets. I see capitalism as being about how capital shapes markets in ways that are often invisible but fundamentally important. Markets are rarely (perhaps never!) equally “free” for everyone — slavery is an extreme example where the market freedoms of enslavers were more important than basic human freedoms for the enslaved. Slaveholders did not see abolition as the triumph of the free market — they saw it as the expropriation of their property and they argued that it infringed on their rights to buy and sell that property as they pleased. They saw the abolition of slavery as encroaching on their own economic freedoms. (emphasis added)

    The answer is striking, and particularly so for the underlined section, because slavery’s most prominent defenders from the late-antebellum period did in fact see abolitionism as a triumph of free markets over an alternative labor system.

    In fact, this very question is how the study of economics obtained its disparaging moniker – the “dismal science.” The source comes from an 1849 essay by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, himself a defender of slavery who used the occasion to bemoan the economic decline of the British Caribbean colonies after emancipation in the early 1830s.

    Economic doctrine, Carlyle contended, was “not a “gay science,” but a rueful – which finds the secret of this universe in “supply and demand,” and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone.” The product of such thinking, he contended, was “a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.”

    And where did the “dismal” portion come from in this rendering? From the association between free-market economic doctrine and the British abolitionist cause, referred to at the time as “Exeter Hall philanthropy” after the meeting hall in London where both groups held several high-profile political gatherings. As Carlyle continued:

    “These two, Exeter Hall philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of black emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it – will give birth to progenies and prodigies: dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto.”

    While Carlyle wrote his essay for British audiences, it is notable for having a profound influence upon American pro-slavery theorists. Virginia-based attorney and sociologist George Fitzhugh became one of Carlyle’s most influential disciples in the United States during the decade before the Civil War. Fitzhugh rose to prominence in the 1850s with two book-length defenses of slavery, as well as dozens of articles espousing the same in DeBow’s Review, a leading periodical in the southern states.

    Echoing Carlyle, Fitzhugh similarly framed the battle between slaveowners and abolitionists as an intellectual contest between free-market economics and the plantation system. As the opening line from the first chapter of his 1854 book Sociology for the South announced,

    Political economy is the science of free society. Its theory and its history alike establish this position. Its fundamental maxim Laissez-faire and “Pas trop gouverner,” are at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least. 

    Adopting an explicitly Carlylean framing, Fitzhugh continued to mount an aggressive defense of slavery by depicting it as fundamentally opposed to the free market, and particularly the free competition of labor. His 1857 book Cannibals All launched an all-out attack on free-market capitalism, portraying it as an existential threat to the entire slave-based plantation economy:

    No successful defence of slavery can be made, till we succeed in refuting or invalidating the principles on which free society rests for support or defence. The world, however, is sick of its philosophy; and the Socialists have left it not a leg to stand on. In fact, it is, in all its ramifications, a mere expansion and application of Political Economy, – and Political Economy may be summed up in the phrase, “Laissez-faire,” or “Let alone.” A system of unmitigated selfishness pervades and distinguishes all departments of ethical, political, and economic science.

    In Carlyle and Fitzhugh we have two clear expressions from prominent pro-slavery theorists that directly conflict with Rosenthal’s characterization. At least according to its most vocal and best-known defenders, late-antebellum slavery was fundamentally irreconcilable with market capitalism. Slavery’s practitioners viewed free market political philosophy as a preeminent threat to their labor system’s very existence. And they absolutely considered abolitionism to be a triumph of free market economic reasoning, to be opposed and resisted at all costs.

    Something’s fishy with the Saez-Zucman tax stats

    Posted By on October 27, 2019

    Just over two weeks ago, Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman approached the New York Times and Washington Post with an astonishing claim. According to new calculations performed by the pair, the wealthiest earners in the United States paid an overall effective tax rate in 2018 that was lower than the bottom half of the income distribution. The claim plays a central role in Saez and Zucman’s newly released book, The Triumph of Injustice (hereafter referred to as SZ-2019).

    The claim went viral on the progressive end of the political spectrum and quickly became a talking point of the Elizabeth Warren campaign, which Saez and Zucman also advise. But there was also something fishy about their new numbers. While SZ-2019 produced a flashy chart that purported to show the top 400 earners’ tax rate dipping below the bottom half, this pattern also broke sharply from their own previous published work including a 2018 article with Thomas Piketty in the top-ranked Quarterly Journal of Economics (hereafter referred to as PSZ-2018).

    In a chance discovery on October 10th, I noticed something odd about the new chart from PS-2019 when compared to the paper from last year. PSZ-2018 did not directly measure the tax rate of the top 400 earners, but it came very close by offering an alternative measure of the top 0.001%. It looked nothing like the new results though. Instead of a sharp decline in the tax rate of the ultra-wealthy over time, the PSZ-2018 numbers showed a relatively flat pattern that only fluctuated year-to-year. For example, the top 0.001% average tax rate in 1962 was 44%. In 2014 it had only changed 3 percentage points, sitting at 41%.

    So I tweeted an open inquiry about the discrepancy.

    Several other economists took notice of similar discrepancies, and were able to tease out further oddities about the SZ-2019 data. For example, Saez and Zucman appeared to be intentionally removing the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) from their estimations for the lowest tax earners. This is an extremely unconventional move that contradicts over 40 years of standard practices by the Congressional Budget Office and similar tax statistic agencies in the U.S. government. The EITC is intended to increase the progressivity of the federal tax system, and omitting it creates the illusion that the poorest tax filers pay a higher rate than they actually incur after the credit is incorporated.

    The bigger discrepancies, however, were at the top of the distribution where Saez and Zucman now showed a sharp decline in tax rates over the past 40 years. When pressed on twitter about this oddity and its inconsistency with his prior work, Zucman was generally evasive. He responded to substantive questions about his stats with flippant dismissals, name-calling, and even blocking users who challenged his findings. The discrepancies would be explained, he promised, in a forthcoming data release on October 14th – timed with the official release of his book.

    The promised release date arrived and it became apparent what had changed between PSZ-2018 and PS-2019. Columbia University economist Wojtek Kopczuk posted a helpful deconstruction of the two charts. Saez and Zucman had dramatically altered their previous assumptions about how to assign and distribute corporate tax incidence across the top earners. The change was highly technical, and their new assumptions contradicted decades of scholarly literature on how to handle corporate tax incidence (I discuss it in detail here). But the big takeaway is that the new assumptions in SZ-2019 completely altered the results that they published in PSZ-2018, producing the downward shift in top tax rates. A comparison of the changes may be seen below:

    As can be seen, SZ-2019 yields dramatically different results than PSZ-2018. But that was not the only oddity about Zucman’s new data release.

    When Zucman posted the promised data files from SZ-2019 on a new website made specifically for the book, he also initially removed the old online data appendix to the published QJE version of PSZ-2018 from his personal website. He then replaced that file with a “new” version of the PSZ-2018 appendix that conveniently matched the newly released SZ-2019 numbers.

    Zucman defended his actions by claiming that the new file constituted an “update” to improve the accuracy of PSZ-2018. Updates to published works, however, normally come from small data refinements. This one involved a major change to the underlying assumptions of the published paper’s methods. Unlike the published version, those changes had not undergone peer review – and likely would not survive it, seeing as the new corporate tax incidence assumptions break sharply from the established literature.

    The oddities in Zucman’s behavior only expanded from there, as Kopczuk noticed the newly replaced file for PSZ-2018 lacked any indication that it had been changed from the older published version of the article. Zucman insisted it was only a misunderstanding, and that the old file had simply been moved and relabeled at another place on his website and pointed Kopczuk to that section. Yet something was still off about the data release.

    Within minutes, several other economists began reporting that they had noticed the same thing – the old PSZ-2018 files had been replaced without any indication of what happened to the old file. One of them, Jeremy Horpedahl, shared a screen capture of Zucman’s website from about 2 hours earlier showing that the old PSZ-2018 file was clearly missing after being “updated” with the SZ-2019 numbers. Zucman apparently restored the old file to his website sometime after he started to come under criticism for removing it. A side-by-side comparison may be found below:

    We may only speculate at this point what Zucman’s intentions entailed. At best, it involved a sloppy roll-out that only added further confusion to the SZ-2019 data release and accompanying questions about its unconventional methods.

    That botched roll-out contrasts sharply with a slick marketing campaign behind the book, which included advance releases of its data to friendly reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post, who ran stories promoting their findings as “facts” before the new book had even been subjected to academic scrutiny. While the new Saez-Zucman numbers are still being processed and scrutinized, it has already become apparent that they represent an outlier finding when compared to other work on the same subject. This has not stopped the Warren campaign and friendly pundits from using the SZ-2019 data to advance their own arguments on behalf of wealth taxation.

    But there’s also a more fundamental question of scholarly transparency at play. Rather than going through normal channels of academic peer review and commentary, Saez and Zucman have packaged their latest statistics for a media release in conjunction with a presidential campaign. The scholarly side of their project has taken a clear back seat to its use for electioneering purposes. Perhaps the aforementioned oddities of the data release only reflect sloppiness that arose inadvertently from this inversion of priorities. But it’s also becoming a pattern with the new SZ-2019 tax statistics that calls their objectivity and credibility into question.

    The Attempted Sliming of Gordon Tullock

    Posted By on May 18, 2019

    A few days ago I received a strange and unexpected notification in the form of a tweet. Calvin TerBeek, a political science PhD student at the University of Chicago, claimed that he had evidence showing:

    “In 1967, Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan’s frequent public choice co-author, wrote a book review for National Review praising an effort at scientific racism. “

    TerBeek posted an excerpt of one of his own working papers in which he repeated the charge at greater length. While I have never met him and had no idea who he was until this moment, he then called me out by name (along with GMU law professor David Bernstein) to suggest that his newly revealed claim would cause significant embarrassment to our work on the history of Buchanan, Tullock, and public choice theory – presumably because both David and I had been at the forefront of the debunking of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

    Accusing someone of racism is an extremely serious ethical charge. Its conveyed stigma serves as an important and necessary social mechanism to discourage and combat racial discrimination. But such charges are also prone to abuse.

    Many activists on the far left are keenly aware that they can socially discredit disliked ideas by branding their expositors as “racists,” including on flimsy or even false evidence. Accordingly, a cottage industry of academics and journalists has emerged in recent years who seem to revel in the tagging of free-market economists with the Scarlet R for Racism. Participants in this exercise scour the internet in search of any and every charge of this type that they can find, credulously repeating and trumpeting it as “evidence” of their own prior supposition that free-market thinkers have an unaddressed race problem that they alone are suited to render judgement upon.

    And so it was with TerBeek’s claim about Gordon Tullock. The cottage industry descended on his thread and, without even the slightest scrutiny as it “confirmed” what they already believed about Tullock, began broadcasting it to the world. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer chimed in with sanctimonious hectoring:

    “People can grouse all they want about Nancy McLean but the simple fact is that historians of conservatism & libertarianism have to come to terms with this stuff. And so far, they haven’t.”

    So did a recurring cast of characters who almost always appear on such threads. Journalist John Ganz and University of Florida political scientist Steven M. Klein – two of the cottage industry’s regulars – jumped in to share TerBeek’s “evidence.” So did Marshall Steinbaum, a University of Utah economist who is equally famous for penning screeds that denounce public choice theory as racist and for mounting vigorous defenses of progressive era eugenicists (or supporters of “collective action to control the birth rate,” as he euphemizes it). MSU historian John Jackson, one of MacLean’s most strident defenders in the academy, arrived to offer his “expertise” on diagnosing Tullock’s alleged dalliance with racial heredity theory. And the Urban Institute’s Dan Kuehn made certain to announce his interest in TerBeek’s newly revealed “socio-political context” as it is “important” to the story of where public choice theory came from.

    Within a few hours of TerBeek’s initial message, the entire cottage industry was mobilized and ready to attach the Scarlet R to Tullock.

    Always Check Your Sources

    There was one small snag though. None of these individuals bothered to check TerBeek’s claims against Tullock’s original essay, a 1967 review of Nathaniel Weyl’s book The Creative Elite in America. While far from the worst examples of the “scientific racism” genre, Weyl’s book basically argues that certain ethnic and cultural groups achieve greater rates of “success” due to allegedly “superior” genetic stock. Thus Weyl attempts to explain such observed phenomena as the strong presence of Jewish scientists in the highest levels of scientific achievement (e.g. Nobel prize winning discoveries) by claiming that it’s a product of favorable hereditary traits.

    Curious as to whether or why Tullock might have endorsed such a work, I went straight to the source. It took a couple days and the help of friends to track it down as his essay is not online. But it was worth the effort.

    As is far too often the case with similar claims emerging from the “free market economists are racist!” cottage industry, the original document simply did not support the charges. In fact, the opposite was true. Tullock had actually attacked Weyl’s book in a deeply critical review that also specifically singled out its author’s erroneous and race-tinged attributions of creative accomplishment to “superior” genetic traits.

    The entire claim was based on an egregious misreading that curiously omitted the bulk of Tullock’s review, including a lengthy concluding passage where he trashed the book’s shoddy scientific claims about heredity. In addition to the statement quoted above, here is how TerBeek represented Tullock’s position in his paper:

    Indeed, the last of this trio [of books by Weyl] was reviewed for NR by Gordon Tullock, the conservative University of Virginia public choice economist. Tullock wrote that while the book will draw “shrill and biased attacks…from the establishment,” he did not “have any great objection to [Weyl’s] ultimate conclusions, that certain groups (Jews, Scots and Chinese) are indeed superior.” Moreover, Tullock did not “object to [Weyl’s] investigating the possibility that certain ethnic groups are genetically superior to others. In fact, I think more such research should be done.”

    It is easy to see how a reader might walk away from that passage with the impression that Tullock heaped glowing praise on the book, and furthermore agreed with its thesis.

    A comparison to Tullock’s full text reveals that TerBeek’s ellipses are doing some extremely heavy lifting to sustain his depiction. Here’s what Tullock actually wrote in the same passage with the omitted portions underlined. Note also that there are a number of textual discrepancies between the two, where TerBeek altered Tullock’s wording as he purported to quote from the document:

    Since my review will also contain some serious criticism, I should like to start by saying that I do not object to his investigating the possibility that certain ethnic groups are genetically superior to others. In fact, I think that more such research should be done. The nature versus nurture controversy has been going on in theoretical terms for a long time now. It should be possible to end the argument by empirical investigation. Nor do I have any great objection to his ultimate conclusions, that certain groups (Jews, Scots and Chinese) are indeed superior. It happens to be my opinion that no significant genetic differences between ethnic groups exist, but I am aware of the fact that this is only an opinion. The evidence on the point is not now so strong that anyone can be sure. My objections to Weyl’s research, then, are not just an expression of bias on my part.

    TerBeek’s omissions are substantial, even going so far as to obscure Tullock’s clear signalling that his review will be very negative. He also conveniently leaves out Tullock’s expressed skepticism of Weyl’s thesis about the alleged genetic superiority in selected ethnic and racial groups.

    Tullock was a social scientist though, and rather than dismissing Weyl’s arguments outright with a wave of the hands he wished for a more thorough – and scientific – debunking. And the remainder of the review, which TerBeek also omits, served up a harsh scientific criticism of Weyl’s entire argument.

    After summarizing Weyl’s thesis for the reader and pointing out that it rests on a claim of favorable genetic trait mutations that are specific to racial and ethnic groups, Tullock turns his sights on Weyl’s noticeably weak evidence:

    “This, however, brings us to a more fundamental weakness in Weyl’s book, his rather old-fashioned approach to statistics. At one point he says that his “data can be subjected to statistical tests of significance” but he does not give any such test. Reading between the lines, I think he regarded any correlation as significant if it involved five or more observations. This is clearly a gravely inadequate test. If he did use it, he must have many correlations which he considers significant which are the result of mere chance. Given the way he presents his data it is impossible to tell which these are. Further, he shows no sign of even knowing about the more sophisticated techniques available for obtaining information from the sort of data he has collected.”

    In a few short sentences Tullock shows that the entire empirical foundation for Weyl’s genetic argument is actually the product of sloppy and deficient statistical analysis, indistinguishable from chance correlations. To any competent social scientist, this critique is thoroughly damning. And yet it is entirely omitted from TerBeek’s summary of the review.

    It is not the only omission though, and in making a statistical case against Weyl, Tullock built up his own counterargument that set its sights directly on the genetic argument underlying most works in the “scientific racism” genre. As Tullock writes clearly, “My final objection concerns [Weyl’s] basic conclusion, that the differences between ethnic groups are genetic” – or precisely the thing that TerBeek’s severely truncated depictions present him as supporting. Tullock then offers an alternative explanation, namely that observed traits of “success” that appear in specific ethnic and cultural groups are most likely the product of environmental effects. As he explains:

    “Weyl discusses the issue seriously only once, and then devotes only a page to it. Here he points out that the superior academic performance of Jews could only be explained either by greater inherent intelligence or by better motivation. He then suggests an experiment to find out which explanation is correct. For the rest of the book, however, he simply assumes that the differences are genetic differences, not the results of environmental differences. Actually, although he does not discuss the point, some of his data point toward environmental rather than genetic causes. There are several cases where ethnic groups changed their relative positions over rather short periods of time. It would be easier to explain these shifts as the result of changing habits of child-rearing than as mass mutations.”

    Tullock concludes on an extremely critical note, tempered only by his observation that the genre in which Weyl wrote was itself full of similarly terrible books if not worse. “I do not think this is a good book,” he explained, “but if I were asked to name a better one in the field, I would be unable to do so.” He could not recommend the The Creative Elite in America to the general reader, and only did so to specialists with the hope that they might offer a scientifically founded corrective to the numerous problems he had detailed in Weyl’s argument.

    Unlike the cottage industry, which carelessly seized on the original claim for reasons that can only be described as a self-serving ideological attack on Tullock, I have no other familiarity with TerBeek’s work and cannot speak to his motives. He seems to be singling out National Review for broaching a taboo subject, even though the same book by Weyl was also reviewed (often on terms that mirrored Tullock’s criticisms) in several mainstream academic journals. Whether his misreading and misrepresentation of Tullock’s position comes from error, bias, or something worse is only known to him, although he has not reacted very professionally in response to the revelations about how his depiction strays far from the review’s actual text.

    As for the others who hastily seized upon and gleefully touted the purported sympathy for “scientific racism” by Tullock, they’ve all gone suspiciously silent. This episode is unlikely to deter their next migration en masse to another sloppy and unsubstantiated charge of racism that they can then enlist as a political bludgeon until it too is scrutinized and found wanting.

    That is, sadly, the current state of “scholarship” on the subject – a roving and ideologically motivated band of slime artists who care neither about the quality of the evidence they carelessly repeat, nor whether it stands up to subsequent scrutiny. The study of history, at least in this area, has gone post-truth.

    Mancur Olson and the ‘Public Choice Circle’

    Posted By on May 13, 2019

    Did James M. Buchanan ideologically exclude scholars who sat to the political left of him from the “public choice circle” in the formative years of the subfield? That’s the claim in an older post by Brad DeLong, which sparked a renewed discussion and subsequent commentary from him over the weekend.

    DeLong’s post consists of a 6-part commentary on how he processes Buchanan’s career. Although he credits the co-author of the Calculus of Consent as a brilliant thinker in the first part, the remaining points are critical. Numbers 2, 4, and 6 are basically credulous repetition of debunked claims by Nancy MacLean in Democracy in Chains, and point 5 is DeLong’s own normative griping, so I won’t focus upon them. But the 3rd comment introduced an original complaint against Buchanan, depicting him as an

    “academic operator going beyond what I, at least, regard as the permissible academic pale by imposing a political-ideological litmus test on who he invited into the public choice circle—i.e., not Mancur Olson, or any Olson students or potential Olson students (like me, in my younger days).”

    The complaint struck me as odd as the late Mancur Olson, a brilliant economist who spent much of his career at the University of Maryland, was very much a part of the intellectual community that Buchanan had cultivated over the years. I immediately recalled hearing in grad school how Olson had driven across the Potomac to attend a public choice seminar at George Mason University only a week or so before he unexpectedly died in 1998. His works are still taught as a foundational core of the public choice track at GMU, and multiple Olsonians still teach in the department.

    So I went back and looked at the evidence to see if Mancur Olson was in fact a victim of a “political-ideological litmus test” that kept him out of the “public choice circle” around Buchanan. It turns out there’s absolutely no basis to this claim.

    The founding of the Public Choice Society is an obvious starting place for our investigation. Buchanan served as its first president in 1964 after organizing the society with Gordon Tullock at the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson Center (TJC) for political economy. Olson was a welcome participant in the group and served as the society’s 6th president from 1972 to 1974. But he was also deeply involved in its founding.

    The society actually traces its origins to an event now known as the Faulkner House Conference – a gathering of about 20 economists and political scientists in October of 1963 that Buchanan and Tullock hosted at UVA. The conference laid the groundwork for what became the public choice subfield and effectively launched a recurring conference that became the society and publisher of the journal by the same name. I just so happened to be working on archival materials from this event, including a participant list. It included numerous intellectual luminaries, among them future Nobel laureate John Harsanyi was there, as were William Riker, Anthony Downs, and Vincent Ostrom. Political theorist John Rawls also attended, as did several PhD students from UVA who went on to become contributors to public choice theory in their own right. Also notably present was Mancur Olson, only a few months past his PhD defense at the time and serving in his first semester on the faculty at Princeton.

    Attendee List, Faulkner House Conference, October 1963

    So Olson was there from the very beginning. That seems like a very strange way to impose a “political-ideological litmus test” that excludes a person from the “public choice circle” around Buchanan.

    But aside from his participation, what did the TJC crowd think of Olson personally? It turns out that they held him in high esteem. We can ascertain that much from Gordon Tullock, who actually served as an academic reference for Olson when the latter was applying for faculty jobs at another university (he moved to Maryland in 1969).

    Now Tullock was famously acerbic, and even derisive of scholars who he ranked beneath his own intellectual ability. Yet in turning to his assessment of Olson one finds only immense charity and respect. Here is the passage from Tullock’s 1969 reference letter, which incidentally was for a faculty position at DeLong’s own current university, UC-Berkeley:

    “In response to your letter of October 7, I can recomment Mancur Olson extremely highly. He has an original and inventive mind and has applied it in the past to very interesting work. There is every reason to believe that he will continue to make such interesting applications in the future. Personally I am sure that you will find him a very pleasant and cooperative person to work with.”

    Source: Gordon Tullock Papers, Hoover Institution

    So to review, far from being ideologically excluded from the “public choice circle” by Buchanan and the rest of the TJC, Olson actually enjoyed their enthusiastic support from the earliest days of the Public Choice Society and even turned to Tullock when he needed a more senior scholar’s reference to advance his own career.

    DeLong’s grievance, it would seem, is specious nonsense.

    Buchanan and the MacLean controversy in retrospect: 1.5 years later

    Posted By on December 21, 2018

    It’s been about a year and a half since Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains hit the bookstore shelves. Having been deeply involved in the controversy that followed from her depiction of economist James M. Buchanan, I’m happy to report that one of the main products of my own research on the subject (co-authored with Art Carden and Vincent Geloso) recently appeared in the Southern Economic Journal.

    The venue itself is important. Our work was based on hundreds of hours of deep archival digging (almost all of it financed out-of-pocket!) and went through over a year of rigorous scholarly scrutiny from the start of the submission process to the day it appeared. MacLean’s book appeared on a trade press, and to this date has never been subjected to the peer review process at the heart of scholarly publishing. But that’s just a part of the long and ongoing discovery process that brings us to this point.

    Looking back to the summer of 2017 when the MacLean wars were in full swing provides another glimpse of how this avenue of research has developed. In doing so, I want to call specific attention to a number of early defenses of MacLean’s book that were written by academic historians who accepted her thesis from the outset.

    It’s illustrative to consider how those defenses have held up over the intervening time. The answer: very poorly.

    Andrew Seal’s Defense of MacLean

    I’ll start with one of the most widely circulated defenses of MacLean, a review essay for the online magazine Public Seminar written by Andrew Seal, a historian at the University of New Hampshire. Seal’s piece is lengthy and veers in many directions, but the core of it, at least in my reading, is captured in the following passage. It concerns one of the earliest critiques of MacLean that I made, namely that her “evidence” of a connection between Buchanan and an assortment of historical figures who defended slavery and segregation was essentially non-existent. Seal writes:

    “That brings us to why Brown v. Board, John C. Calhoun, and the Agrarians are in the book. To read some of MacLean’s critics, you’d think she dredges up these matters just because she wants to make Buchanan out to be a racist…MacLean takes up all of these considerations as part of why Buchanan wanted to fight Brown: her argument is not that he was just a racist and didn’t like integrated schools. For Buchanan and Colgate Darden (the president of UVA, who sponsored Buchanan’s center that MacLean argues was designed to fight Brown), it was the whole complex of issues that were suddenly in play that made Brown so ominous. One of those issues certainly was integrated schools, and MacLean does furnish extensive evidence for the amount of effort that Buchanan put into trying to figure out how to get around the Brown ruling for Virginia’s public schools (see Chapter 4). His frustrations with the difficulty of figuring out how to circumvent this imposition of federal authority, she argues, led to his conceptualization of public choice economics. The argument, let me reiterate, isn’t “he was racist so he invented public choice.” The argument is, he disliked the coercive power of the state that he saw revealed in Brown and its enforcement, and he kept working on the problem of how to fight that power and formulated public choice.”

    Seal indulged in a fair amount of straw-manning when he suggested that MacLean’s critics on this point based our objections on the claim that these unsavory individuals simply made Buchanan look racist (MacLean did in fact enlist these names in explicitly racial terms to try to poison the well against Buchanan, and accolades for her book from such prominent academics as Peter Temin and James Brewer Stewart specifically boiled her message down to an allegation of racism against Buchanan). My own objections to MacLean on this point were, and remain, that she never even substantiated her attempts to associate Buchanan with Calhoun, the Agrarians, and other racially retrograde figures. The evidence simply isn’t there.

    Nevertheless, Seal attempts to redeem MacLean by arguing that a subtler nuance of her case was being neglected – namely that she brought in these racially retrograde figures to show the intellectual climate of the resistance to Brown v. Board and racial desegregation, all of which supposedly shaped Buchanan’s development of public choice theory in the same era.

    This broader argument of MacLean, however, was never in dispute. Indeed, it’s the core of the claim that we address in our SEJ article. Or as my co-author Art Carden summarizes:

    MacLean argues that Buchanan, who was the chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Virginia in the late 1950s, and his coauthor G. Warren Nutter–who, incidentally, was born in Topeka, Kansas–were at the center of Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” movement to oppose school desegregation in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Massive Resistance failed, and in MacLean’s story this taught Buchanan an important lesson about the need for stealth: if he wanted to get his anti-government program past an uncooperative majority, he had to make sure that the majority was constrained by constitutional rules. What’s more, he realized that the clandestine Radical Right would have to be less than forthcoming about its motives.”

    Note that Seal tries to slip this specific claim of MacLean’s into his argument – “MacLean takes up all of these considerations as part of why Buchanan wanted to fight Brown” – as if it were an established matter of fact that he was intent on fighting Brown. Yet this core claim remains entirely in the realm of MacLean’s own unproven conjecture (at one point in her introduction she even fabricates a non-existent conversation between Buchanan and UVA president Colgate Darden where the two secretly pledge to fight Brown…except there’s no evidence that this conversation or anything like it ever happened).

    It actually gets worse than that for both MacLean and Seal’s arguments. Not only is their conjecture unsubstantiated, but as we’ve since documented, it’s actually in direct conflict with archival evidence of Buchanan’s activities at the time. MacLean builds her entire case about Buchanan’s supposed backlash against Brown on an attempt to link him to the segregationist “Massive Resistance” movement in Virginia, and specifically Richmond newspaper editor James Jackson Kilpatrick. Yet as we conclusively show in our paper, there’s simply no evidence of her posited connection – indeed Kilpatrick even wrote that he was unfamiliar with the “Buchnan study” (sic) when another correspondent asked him about it in April 1959 – a time when MacLean repeatedly asserts, albeit without evidence, that Buchanan and Kilpatrick were collaborating behind the scenes.

    Nor is there any other evidence that links Buchanan to Massive Resistance. In fact, quite the opposite is true. As we recently learned, Buchanan’s collaborator G. Warren Nutter – the co-author of an article that MacLean incorrectly portrays as a Massive Resistance document – was actually personally involved in another group that she effusively praises in her book – an organization of Charlottesville, VA parents who set up emergency classrooms for children after the Massive Resisters shuttered a local elementary school to try to thwart integration. Nutter, it turns out, hosted one such classroom in his own basement.

    Seal continued his argument by enlisting a very strange syllogism that would not pass muster in a freshman year philosophy survey:

    So why is Calhoun in the book? Again, it’s not because she wants to smear Buchanan or libertarianism in a guilt by association maneuver. Besides, the connection between libertarianism and Calhoun is hardly the debatable contention that her critics say it is. I just did a search of the Mises Institute and turned up 220 results — including this article — referring to Calhoun, all positively as far as I can tell. And consider that the same press — the Liberty Fund — which has put out the Collected Works of Buchanan also has published a volume of “Calhoun’s most important constitutional and political writings.” 

    Or briefly summarized,

    • Buchanan was a libertarian.
    • Other libertarians at the Mises Institute are quite fond of Calhoun
    • The libertarian-leaning publisher that prints Buchanan’s Collected Works also has a volume of Calhoun’s political writings in its large catalog of books on political theory.
    • It is therefore reasonable for MacLean to associate Buchanan with Calhoun.

    In addition to the fallacy at play though, it is actually possible to affirmatively disprove its core claim. Some 40 years before MacLean’s book, political scientist Douglas Rae queried Buchanan’s co-author Gordon Tullock about whether Calhoun had any influence on their core text the Calculus of Consent. Tullock answered in the American Political Science Review that neither he nor Buchanan were even familiar with Calhoun’s work. There’s no reason to believe that Tullock was deceiving in this straight-forward answer to an honest query in the top journal of political science. Rae was not trying to associate them with Calhoun’s racial baggage, but simply inquiring if and how Calhoun fit into their understanding of the long list of political theorists who wrote about problems of majoritarian democracy in the 19th century. The answer, as Tullock responded, was not at all. We are therefore left to MacLean and Seal’s specious and anachronistic guilt-by-association exercise through the Mises Institute.

    Seal’s argument continues from there into other areas, including an extended section in which he defends MacLean from the charge of altering of quotations by Tyler Cowen and other subjects in her book. I consider Seal’s argument on this point to be exceedingly tendentious. It actually requires overlooking the fact that MacLean deleted entire passages from the sentences she quotes so as to alter their meaning – arguably one of the gravest evidentiary sins a historian can commit short of forging a historical document outright. But even here, Seal’s defense has not fared well over the intervening time. Several other instances of MacLean misuse of quotations have come to light and are summarized here. At this point, it is a safe conclusion that MacLean’s alterations are not simply a few stray errors but an intentional and recurring pattern.

    John Jackson’s Defense of MacLean

    Around the time of Seal’s article, William & Mary historian John P. Jackson (now at Michigan State) also penned a lengthy defense of MacLean on his personal blog. This one was directed at me by name, although it made similar points.

    Jackson specifically echoed one of Seal’s additional arguments, namely accusing MacLean’s critics of over-emphasizing Buchanan to the neglect of the “real” message of her book, which is to say a critique of libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch aka “the Koch Brothers.” Jackson and Seal venture deep into armchair psychology in making this claim, openly wondering if this inattention somehow reflects a hidden embarrassment among libertarians about their Koch associations.

    The answer is much more simple than that: MacLean’s focus on the Kochs comes across as little more than an angry and partisan political polemic. There’s very little actual historical content to the chapters on Koch in her book, and indeed most of her Koch narrative is essentially cribbed from the only slightly less conspiratorial polemic Dark Money by political pundit Jane Mayer. There’s nothing original to MacLean’s claims on this point, aside from her specifically linking her Koch conspiracy theory by name to Buchanan on account of the publicly-known and long-disclosed fact that Charles Koch donated heavily to the economics department at George Mason University. But exactly nobody was surprised by the common knowledge that Koch donated to Buchanan’s department. In short, this segment of the book elicits comparatively little attention from MacLean’s critics because it’s light on substance and originality but heavy on partisan political rhetoric (MacLean does, however, follow her recurring pattern of altering quotations and their context when dealing with documents from Charles Koch).

    But Jackson also attempts a defense of one of MacLean’s most bizarre abuses of evidence – her enlisting of the Agrarian poet Donald Davidson as a supposed intellectual influence upon Buchanan’s early career.

    One of my earliest criticisms of MacLean specifically dealt with Davidson. She speculates that Davidson’s Agrarianism induced a young Buchanan to want to attend Vanderbilt University where the poet was based. She also speculates that Davidson’s anti-New Deal and segregationist political writings were the source of Buchanan’s later use of the famous “Leviathan” metaphor to describe an overarching federal government.

    As I noted at the time, MacLean indulges in these repeated conjectures without any evidence whatsoever. There are no archival documents connecting Buchanan to Davidson. There is no evidence Buchanan ever read Davidson’s “Leviathan” argument. The footnotes MacLean lists for this claim all point to generic works about Davidson and Agrarian poetry, none of which links him to Buchanan. And in fact, Buchanan himself gave a very clear alternative origin story for the Leviathan metaphor in his own works – he picked it up from an interest in its originator Thomas Hobbes that he gained in the early 1970s, not some speculated Agrarian poetry hobby as a college student in the 1930s.

    But this did not deter Jackson, who built an elaborate argument in MacLean’s defense on the grounds that she used the qualifier “seemed” in one of her many passages asserting a link between Davidson and Buchanan. As Jackson put it, “MacLean is hedging by saying Davidson seemed most decisive [on Buchanan’s worldview]; Magness omits the qualifier.”

    It’s not clear how that makes MacLean’s case any better as a work of scholarship. Jackson tried anyway, in a long and tedious post that attempts to spin plausible excuses from creative readings of her words.

    Call it the hoodwink defense: MacLean is clear of the charge of misrepresenting her evidence since she merely wished to trick her readers into believing unfounded claims about Buchanan through word games, as opposed to advancing a lie outright.

    Of course Jackson also omitted other passages where MacLean got careless. She neglected to insert a qualifier to several of her other Agrarian references, such as a prominent example on p. 33. It reads “Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that attracted James Buchanan – one that stamped his vision of the good society and the just state” – not “Vanderbilt was also the site of a cultural project that seemed to attract James Buchanan – one that seemed to stamp his vision of the good society and the just state.” It would therefore seem to be the case that Jackson’s defense falls on its face.

    But we needn’t only dwell in Jackson’s seemstressing, as in a second post he also accused echoed Seal’s errors above – right down to his own version of the fallacious Calhoun syllogism about the Mises Institute.

    Jackson also evinces extreme credulity for MacLean’s claims, including the following assertion about Buchanan and segregation:

    MacLean, however, is not interested in what is in Buchanan’s heart regarding race. What she cares about is his actions and his public statements. In those, she clearly shows, Buchanan worked hard to support every move the segregationists made in Virginia. Who cares if he did so because he was defending some strange view of “liberty” rather than white supremacy? The effect at the time and the place were the same. So, was Buchanan a racist? Who cares? What is important is that he worked hard in support of racist policies in Virginia in the 1950s, which is what MacLean shows.

    Yet as we’ve seen in multiple examples, MacLean’s evidence simply does not sustain any of her core charges on this count. In fact, she frequently misreads Buchanan’s limited number of public statements on the segregation issue – often badly. In one instance that has since come to light, Buchanan actually inserted an addendum into his 1959 paper with Nutter on school vouchers that recognized the impropriety of their use at segregated private schools. MacLean completely missed this addendum, much as she completely missed Nutter’s involvement in setting up emergency classrooms for his children after the Massive Resisters shuttered their elementary school.

    In the time since Jackson’s post, we’ve also learned that the voucher issue in Virginia actually cut across all political lines on the school desegregation debate. MacLean simply assumes that only segregationists backed vouchers, and that the issue of school choice was inseparable from Massive Resistance to Brown v. Board. Jackson, for his part, credulously repeated her claims as if they were established truisms.

    Yet this political narrative is simply untrue at its core. Rather than the Massive Resisters of MacLean’s depiction, the 1959 tuition grant system originated from political moderates who were specifically breaking from the Byrd Machine that controlled Virginia politics up until that point. Many of these men were moderate segregationists who nonetheless accepted the inevitability of Brown. Others were business-minded legislators who recognized the Massive Resistance school closure policy as a threat to the economic well-being of the state, and were scrambling to get the schools open. From its very inception in early 1959 (a suggestion of State Sen. Eugene Sydnor, a business-minded moderate with strong Chamber of Commerce connections), the program was actually intended as a flanking maneuver to finally break the hardline segregationist Massive Resisters’ school closure policy of the previous year. Indeed, House of Delegates speaker Blackburn Moore – the leader of the Massive Resistance movement in state government – unsuccessfully attempted to block the tuition grant system from even coming to a vote in because he knew its adoption would make it impossible to hold the line any longer on the school closure policy after a federal court deemed it unconstitutional a few weeks prior.

    Vouchers also had the support of the small contingent of moderate integrationists in the Assembly, such as Arlington delegate Kathryn Stone who saw them as an important “safety valve” measure to build a legislative coalition in the center. Stone specifically believed that they would break the Massive Resistance stranglehold on state politics under Sen. Harry Flood Byrd’s political machine, and continued to defend the program until her retirement from politics in the mid-60s. Stone was one of the only legislators in that era to speak out in support of the NAACP after the Massive Resistors tried to harass it through the state’s business registration bureaucracy.

    In fact as we’ve since learned, some of the state’s most die-hard segregationists actually turned against vouchers in early 1959 because they believed the school choice option would undermine an elaborate system of enrollment caps and zoning regulations intended to keep black children out of majority-white public schools. This anti-voucher “negro engulfment” theory actually originated in Charlottesville and dominated the local debate over vouchers at the very moment Buchanan and Nutter took up the issue. Nutter would have known directly about the “engulfment” argument because his children attended the same elementary school where the segregationists first coined the idea. Buchanan almost certainly knew of it, both from Nutter and from its extensive coverage in the local press. Curiously, it is completely missing from MacLean’s account, and its repetition by Jackson.

    At this point, it’s safe to conclude that MacLean’s early defenders have not withstood the tests of time and scrutiny on either their major or minor points. This is no small matter either, as MacLean specifically deferred to Seal and Jackson in a July 2017 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education even as she refused to answer her critics herself.

    To this date, MacLean continues to refuse engagement with scholars who have pointed out substantive flaws, errors, and misrepresentation of evidence in her book. As those criticisms continue to appear in scholarly venues, it will require more than deference to debunked blog posts by Seal and Jackson to address the deep and pervasive problems with her book.

    How Warren Nutter opposed Massive Resistance

    Posted By on November 22, 2018

    The Irish satirist Jonathan Swift once remarked that “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.” His words anticipated a common observation in scientific research wherein the time and effort that must be spent correcting a falsehood far exceeds the claim that triggered the original error. We see modern examples of this pattern with the anti-vaccination movement, homeopathic medical pseudoscience, and just about any political conspiracy theory of the moment. Fake news travels quickly and far when it has an audience craving its message, whereas correcting the record is a slow and arduous task with few immediate rewards.

    On that note, I once again return to the subject of Democracy in Chains, the 2017 book by Duke professor Nancy MacLean. This book has almost single-handedly spawned a flurry of attacks and conspiracy theorizing about the late economist James M. Buchanan, including an unsettling acceptance from high ranks in the economics profession. Yet as a work of scholarship, it is almost completely wrong on major and minor points alike. Correcting these errors takes time and patience.

    Today I’d like to look at one of the central arguments of MacLean’s book in its attempt to link Buchanan and his University of Virginia colleague G. Warren Nutter to the “Massive Resistance” movement against school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education. In MacLean’s telling, Nutter and Buchanan are essentially the academic villains of the “Massive Resistance” era – a pair of economists who unscrupulously seized on the racist backlash to Brown in order to advance a libertarian school privatization scheme for ideological reasons. MacLean makes this message the central point of what is arguably the book’s most important and widely-touted chapter:

    As MacLean puts it, Nutter and Buchanan are guilty not because they espoused segregation themselves but because they were negligent about a Massive Resisters ploy in 1958 that resulted in state government’s forcible shuttering of public schools facing integration orders. As the opening to MacLean’s Chapter 4 makes clear, she places Nutter and Buchanan in opposition to some of the heroes of her narrative, the moderate middle-class suburban parents of Virginia who took a stance against the school closures and the political machine of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.

    MacLean expands on this theme with specific reference to the school closures in Charlottesville, Virginia where Nutter and Buchanan lived. As she explains in a passage a few pages later:

    “In Charlottesville, home to UVA, ten elementary school PTA mothers had formed the Parents’ Committee for Emergency Schooling, cobbling together temporary schooling in church basements, home family rooms, and clubhouses, so as to avoid a mass rush to private schooling. The mothers differed on some questions, one explained, “but the one point on which we all agree is balking at the idea of doing away with the public school system.” The “tense air” in town marked a change “from the usual tranquility of Albemarle County,” noted the University of Virginia student newspaper.”

    Elsewhere in the chapter, and in her public talks, MacLean effusively praises this group of suburban parents for fighting back against the Massive Resisters. She cites them as examples of responsible citizens, contrasted with the claimed dereliction of Nutter and Buchanan. And she specifically credits the Charlottesville-based Parents’ Committee for Emergency Schooling (PCES) for leading the charge. A few pages later, she enlists the very same point to further bludgeon Buchanan as the foil of this school saver cause:

    “Buchanan had first pitched his program to Colgate Darden as a way to push back against federal overreach in the name of liberty. But the parents’ mobilization to save the public schools had revealed harder truths. It wasn’t just the northeastern elite that rejected his vision of a free society. It was tens of thousands of white moderate citizens of the state in whose name Byrd was defying federal power.”

    MacLean’s depiction of Buchanan’s role in the desegregation period is factually erroneous and historically unreliable from beginning to finish. But these specific passages are also important to note for another reason. Not only do they evince an interpretive error by MacLean, but they unintentionally reveal gross historical incompetence in her handling of the subject matter.

    How so? Completely unbeknownst to MacLean, her own “villain” Warren Nutter was actually one of the founding parents of the PCES.

    Nutter and his family lived in Charlottesville, and his children attended Venable Elementary School – one of the institutions that the state government forcibly closed in September 1958 to prevent its integration. As parents in his neighborhood scrambled to create makeshift classrooms for the duration of the Massive Resisters’ assault on education, the Nutters actually volunteered their home to host a class of seventh graders for the duration of the semester.

    On September 24, 1958, the Washington Star ran a story on how the PCES mobilized to ensure the continuity of schooling after the Massive Resisters shut down Venable Elementary. They specifically featured the Nutter family’s efforts and interviewed Mrs. Nutter for the article. A week later, the Staunton Leader visited the temporary classroom in the basement of the Nutter home at 1860 Field Street. They recruited Mrs. James Leitch, a displaced public school teacher from Venable, to teach the class and converted picnic and ping-pong tables into desks. As they settled in for the long fight against Byrd’s school closure policy, Warren Nutter even brought home desk-chairs from the University of Virginia for the students to use.

    Nutter’s colleague James Buchanan did not have any children, but he too was aware of the effort of the PCES and likely approved. He mentioned it briefly in a letter to Ronald Coase, his soon-to-be UVA colleague and a future Nobel laureate (Daniel Kuehn has a short twitter post on Buchanan’s letter here). We also know from a 1960 letter that Buchanan praised the defeat of the “reactionary elements” in the state a year earlier – a clear reference to the end of the Massive Resistance school closure laws.

    Since the Nutters were heavily involved in PCES and had children at Venable, they almost certainly followed the local political fights over desegregation in Charlottesville.

    One of these happened the following spring after the courts ordered the reopening of Venable and the other closed schools. Local segregationists, led by school board attorney John S. Battle, Jr., waged a public campaign against school vouchers on the grounds that they would undermine his “passive resistance” scheme to thwart integration with enrollment caps. In a series of widely publicized speeches, including one at Venable, Battle claimed that vouchers would lead to the “negro engulfment” of public schools. This campaign began shortly after the Charlottesville school board met to consider Battle’s scheme on January 26, 1959, and directly coincided with the public debate over vouchers between January and April. Nutter authored his voucher article with Buchanan during this time, and published it on April 12-13 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

    Importantly, the connection between the Nutters and Venable Elementary demonstrates their awareness of Battle’s anti-voucher segregationism, and suggests it was a likely intended target of Nutter and Buchanan when they decided to publish their article. Segregationists on the Venable PTA had a copy of one of Battle’s “negro engulfment” speeches mass-reproduced, and mailed it to every Venable parent – which would have included the Nutter family.

    This entire chain of events casts Nutter’s personal stake in the school desegregation fight in a very different light than MacLean’s narrative. Indeed, the two are impossible to reconcile given that the Nutter family participated in the founding of the very same group that Democracy in Chains identifies and praises as the foil of Nutter and Buchanan’s position during the 1958-59 school crisis. In a revealing stroke of irony, it would appear that it is Nancy MacLean who “know(s) nothing about Virginia history.

    Once more unto the breach

    Posted By on November 4, 2018

    An unusual event happened last week at Middle Tennessee State University, the alma mater of economist James M. Buchanan. Attempting to capitalize on that connection, the MTSU philosophy and religious studies department invited Duke University historian Nancy MacLean to deliver an attack on Buchanan based upon her book Democracy in Chains. MacLean gave her standard speech on this deeply flawed book. But something was different this time.

    Whereas almost all of MacLean’s public appearances to date have taken place in front of intentionally friendly audiences, or with interviewers who supply a succession of softball questions, this time she received push back from the audience. MTSU economics professor Dan Smith, who also directs the research center bearing Buchanan’s name, presented MacLean with a question about her repeatedly-asserted connection between Buchanan and segregationist newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick during the “massive resistance” movement against Brown v. Board of Education.

    Kilpatrick is a central figure in MacLean’s thesis. He dominates the early chapters of her book, where she attempts to link Buchanan to the massive resisters. She repeatedly implies that Buchanan shared Kilpatrick’s affinities for the constitutional theories of John C. Calhoun, and even accuses Buchanan of secretly coordinating his advocacy of school vouchers with Kilpatrick’s attempts to stave off desegregation through the influence of his newspaper, the Richmond News-Leader.

    But Kilpatrick is also a problem for MacLean. As readers of this blog know, evidence of MacLean’s oft-asserted link between Buchanan and Kilpatrick on “massive resistance” is essentially non-existent. In fact, I’ve found conclusive archival evidence from the timeline that shows Kilpatrick was not even aware of Buchanan and his colleague Warren Nutter’s essay on school vouchers until only a few days before it appeared in print in the rival Richmond Times-Dispatch in mid-April 1959.

    During the Q&A period of her talk at MTSU, Smith attempted to present MacLean with a question about the accuracy of her portrayal of Kilpatrick. The full exchange may be seen on video here. When Smith raised a question about the problems with MacLean’s documentation, she suddenly interrupted him mid-sentence. While she never answered the question about Kilpatrick, she did personally attack Smith and her other critics, myself included.

    I transcribed the pertinent section of the exchange below, beginning at the point where MacLean interrupts Smith and continuing until she finally permits him to finish his question (the exchange goes on from there with additional ad hominem attacks by MacLean, though she never actually answers the question about Kilpatrick). I submit that it exhibits the astoundingly partisan and unscholarly nature of MacLean’s entire project with Democracy in Chains:

    (SMITH, asking his question about Kilpatrick at which point MACLEAN interrupts)

    MACLEAN: You are reciting the libertarian talking points by faculty members funded by Charles Koch to go through my footnotes – people who know nothing about Virginia history. All Virginia historians are laughing at the gymnastics that they are doing to try to exculpate Buchanan from the reality of his history. Why don’t you guys just say – okay – yeah. He did these things. Now let’s talk about the world we’re trying to bring into being. I mean you can keep going through the listing, but it’s been disproved by all the historians who know anything about this period, and is kinda way in the weeds for people here. Maybe we should talk about – Dan Smith – weren’t you at Troy University? Didn’t you boast about – didn’t somebody boast you trying to take down the pension system in Alabama, and the firefighters of Alabama, 10,000 firefighters, mobilized and stopped the effort to take down the pension system? Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the real consequences for people’s lives, and I’d be happy to share with people footnotes and documentation back and forth. But I stand by everything in my book.

    SMITH: We can have an official debate. I’d love to.

    MACLEAN: No thank you. What happens when one debates with folks from your team is you end up on Breitbart and Fox News and that’s when the real death threats and harassment start.

    SMITH: Can I finish my question though?

    MACLEAN: Yes.

    SMITH: So, you make this association with Kilpatrick, right? But Buchanan only had – so if we go through the UVA archives there’s only 2 letters from Buchanan. One’s a form letter sent to multiple editors. The other’s a request to get a letter back – to get a copy of an op-ed that cited Buchanan. So there is essentially zero evidence of documentation with Kilpatrick between him and Buchanan.

    MACLEAN: Can I ask you something? Are you a historian? Did you did that research, or whose research are you using?

    SMITH: Phil Magness. He’s a historian

    MACLEAN: Yeah. I know. He’s hired to write on this full time. Come on. Really. It is silly. Okay? First of all, these guys do not seem to understand. This is one thing that I have understood is that while the rest of the academy, history, social sciences…

    SMITH: This is an ad hominem attack against me. I’m trying to ask you a question about…

    MACLEAN: Alright. Go ahead. He wants to talk about James Kilpatrick in a footnote I wrote.

    (Smith is then interrupted by the audience at this point before proceeding with the remainder of his question)

    Note that while Smith remains calm and persists in presenting his question on perfectly reasonable grounds of detail and evidence, MacLean’s demeanor throughout pivots between evading the question entirely and heaping personal abuse upon her interlocutors.

    At one point in reference to myself (after Smith mentioned my forthcoming article on her thesis), MacLean even claims that I am “hired to write on this full time” – apparently, in her increasingly conspiratorial mind, by the Koch Brothers. MacLean offers no source for this charge, and it is yet another falsehood that she makes up out of thin air (well, either that or I’m owed a large paycheck that I had no idea I would be receiving!).

    Unlike MacLean, who received a $50,000 taxpayer subsidy to write her book on top of the extensive resources and sabbatical time she enjoys as an endowed chair at an elite university, I conducted my research on my own time and almost entirely out-of-pocket. I further did so while maintaining a full-time teaching load at a small liberal arts college. The only “Koch money” that even came near the project was a small grant of a couple hundred dollars that my one of my co-authors received to pay for photocopies and a newspaper database subscription, none of which made it into my pocket.

    It is revealing to compare and contrast the results of our respective efforts. My archival study of Buchanan underwent rigorous peer review, and is now set to appear in a well-regarded economics journal. MacLean’s book, by contrast, went out on a trade press where it was marketed as an openly partisan political work. To this date, not one single page of of her book has undergone the scrutiny of formal peer review. That’s a remarkably shaky position for her to be in – especially when it is contrasted with the bombastic attacks found in her remarks as excerpted above.

    Euphemizing Eugenics

    Posted By on September 11, 2018

    The involvement of the early 20th century Progressive Movement with the racial pseudo-science of eugenics has only recently begun to receive a thorough and appropriately critical historical treatment. The reason for this late treatment likely derives from a polite reluctance to engage an ethical blot on the careers of several celebrated scholars and political figures who more than dabbled in eugenic planning over the years. Leading progressive economists Richard T. Ely (a founder of the American Economic Association), John R. Commons, and Edward A. Ross (the primary instigator of the creation of the AAUP) were also devout eugenicists who harbored beliefs in white supremacy, forced sterilization of “lesser” races and the “feeble minded,” and a range of similar political objectives with overtly discriminatory designs.

    Other prominent eugenicists included a practical who’s who of the intellectual and political elite of the early 20th century, with a particularly strong representation on the political left. Well known names such as novelist H.G. Wells, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, economist John Maynard Keynes, U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt all had connections of varying degrees to the eugenics movement, some of them quite pronounced. And while the racial views of these individuals varied in intensity and severity, even the milder advocates of so-called “positive” eugenics would be rightly classified as bigoted today.

    Their beliefs, of course, represented an ugly intellectual infatuation of the time, and overt eugenicism has since been purged from the political mainstream. It is still a subject that warrants a historical reckoning though, and much of the better scholarship on early 20th century eugenics seeks to better understand what led such prominent figures to embrace this movement. One common theme, of course, is a shared affinity for regulating other areas of life, thus progressive eugenicists frequently pointed to similarities between their parallel attacks on the “laissez faire” of the capitalism, as manifested in a turn toward economic planning, and their repudiation of the “laissez faire of nature” through the attempted planning of human reproduction.

    Scrutiny of the uglier details of progressive eugenicism is not always welcomed though.

    In particular, Thomas Leonard’s 2016 book on the subject, Illiberal Reformers, provoked an angry backlash by economist Marshall Steinbaum of the Roosevelt Institute and historian Bernard Weisberger of the University of Chicago. I’ve written about the historical sloppiness of this pair before, including a lengthy “review of a review” that documents numerous deficiencies of evidence and analysis in one of their published critiques of Leonard.

    The error-prone critique of Leonard they produced may not be the most alarming part of Steinbaum and Weisberger’s work though. While mounting a defense of progressive economists such as Ely, Commons, and Ross, this pair’s primary counterargument involves actively burying their progressive subject matters’ eugenics under several layers of historical euphemism.

    This pattern can be seen in several of Steinbaum and Weisberger’s published works on the subject, including the title of a 2016 article in the journal Democracy. Struggling to even use the word eugenics, they instead adopt a convention of referring to the policies and beliefs it entails under the comparatively mild label of “exclusionist” or “exclusionary” attitudes.

    They begin with a defense of Richard T. Ely, the progressive economist who, among other things, advocated forced sterilization of the “unfit,” strict regulations of marriage to prohibit race-mixing, immigration restrictions to bar certain “lesser” races from entering the United States, and a belief that African-Americans were an “inferior” race of “grownup children, and should be treated as such.” Even among eugenicists, Ely’s views evinced a particularly noxious racial extreme. Yet here is how Steinbaum and Weisberger bury those beliefs in euphemism:

    “It’s easy to see where exclusionary attitudes could develop here. By restricting the supply of labor, incumbent workers face less competition for jobs, and employers have fewer outside options, so in turn must compromise with labor’s demands. This was why Ely favored immigration restrictions, collective action to control the birthrate, child-labor bans, and other barriers to entry into the labor market.”

    The formula for their defense consists of two components. The first is to add the spin of a partially exonerating motive to otherwise indefensible beliefs. Thus we’re told that – yes – Ely harbored certain ugly beliefs, but he did so for the allegedly commendable purpose of certain “good” progressive goals – of “strengthening [labor’s] hand at the negotiating table” with big business, or to prevent the “exploitative” conditions of a “race to the bottom” of the labor market.

    Second, they intentionally obscure the severity of the ugly beliefs being discussed by disguising them with bizarre turns of phrase. The forcible sterilization of black people becomes merely “collective action to control the birthrate.” The racial segregation that Ely fostered and endorsed as a matter of law simply becomes “barriers to entry into the labor market.” The overt racial ideology that Ely espoused isn’t white supremacy or eugenics, it’s “exclusionist ideas.”

    If you think something is odd about this choice of language, you’re starting to get the picture.

    The pattern continues throughout Steinbaum and Weisberger’s defense of the progressives. Take, for example, their following depiction of economist Edward A. Ross, who was fired from Stanford University in 1900 in a row over one of his eugenically charged speeches. The specific remarks in question (which I blogged about previously here) are simply vile. Ross spewed overt white supremacy. He spoke of the threat of a white “race suicide” in the face of Asian immigration, which threatened to swamp “California, this latest and loveliest seat of the Aryan race.” He also appealed to vicious stereotypes of Chinese workers as unclean and racially inferior, and attempted to incite a mob of labor activists against them in a period when San Francisco politics were frequently marred by race riots.

    Here is how Steinbaum and Weisberger soft-peddle that same event:

    “Edward A. Ross’s dismissal from Stanford resulted from his outspoken advocacy for closing the door on Chinese and Japanese immigration. Unluckily for him, the Stanford family found these Asian workers useful and the professor’s heresy got him the pink slip.”

    Note again the two components of their formula. First, they appeal to a partially exonerating motive. Ross was, after all, standing up to the railroad barons of the Stanford family. Second, they euphemize Ross’s actual words, which were replete with appeals to Aryan supremacy and forebodings about race-mixing between the west and “the Orient,” as simple “advocacy for closing the door on Chinese and Japanese immigration.”

    An identical pattern of exoneration and euphemism pervades a longer article on the same subject that Steinbaum and Weisberger contributed to the Journal of Economic Literature in late 2017. They discuss the aforementioned Ross incident in closely guarded language, praising the “measure of self-protection in solidarity” that allegedly spawned the founding of the American Economic Association and crediting the organization’s intervention in the case as an important precedent for “academic freedom.” They offer not the slightest hint to the casual reader of their article that Ross’s troubles stemmed from a white supremacist speech.

    In similar fashion they adopt the awkward and euphemized phrasing of “exclusion” or “exclusionary views” to designate racial eugenics no less than 17 times in the article – in fact, it appears far more frequently than the word “eugenics” itself. When the specifics of eugenics are mentioned in the context of progressives, it is almost always an exercise in tu quoque argumentation, followed immediately by a string of qualifiers that attribute similar views to the free-market interlocutors of Ely, Commons, and Ross. Curiously, these alleged free-market eugenicists are never quite specified by name, or they are attached by misattribution to other progressives such as the anti-laissez faire sociologist Franklin Giddings.

    The formula of partial exoneration and euphemism continues to accompany every concession that Steinbaum and Weisberger make about progressive eugenicism. We are therefore told:

    “They certainly did express their own exclusionary views, but those views were motivated by seeking to increase the bargaining power of a narrowly defined set of workers, eventually taking shape in the hands of Commons and Ross as an elaborate racist typology legitimating exclusion from the labor market.”

    Note the positively Orwellian turns of phrase that they deploy to obscure the horrifically racist positions they are downplaying and excusing. For Ely, Commons, and Ross, that “narrowly defined set of workers” actually translates into white people of a northern European hereditary stock. The motive of “seeking to increase the[ir] bargaining power” actually meant qn elaborate legal system meant to advantage the size of the white population by forcibly restricting the reproductive habits of non-white persons. And the “racist typology legitimating exclusion from the labor market” is better known as the vicious system of legally and socially enforced racial apartheid of the segregation-era United States.

    In the end, all that Steinbaum and Weisberger can muster in condemnation of their progressive eugenicist forebears is a generic concession that forced sterilization “was not merely misguided, but cruel in its implementation” followed by further tu quoque jabs at unnamed classical liberals and the remarkably tone-deaf qualifier that “no eugenicist with any progressive links realized that the notion of innate inferiority could open the door to the mass murder of living populations.” Apparently that’s the mitigating standard against which we are to judge a formal crusade of forced eugenic sterilization and legalized discrimination against entire disliked races and categories of people. It may have been bad, but at least they didn’t commit genocide! Such ethical posturing, to put it mildly, is entirely underwhelming.

    On Buchanan, Knight, and Arthur Krock

    Posted By on September 4, 2018

    Frank H. Knight

    One of the more fascinating pieces of evidence I examine in my article (with Art Carden and Vincent Geloso) on James M. Buchanan and the school desegregation crisis is an October 1957 letter that Buchanan sent to his old mentor Frank H. Knight. At the time of this letter, Knight was preparing to spend the Spring 1958 semester as a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson Center, which Buchanan directed.

    At the time of his visit, much of Knight’s attention was focused upon developing a theory for what he saw as the proper role of scholarly guidance on questions of public policy. As a thinker he eschewed political activism, believing it to be an improper and unproductive direction for scholarly attention. Yet he also saw a role for scholars in fostering an ethic of rational, informed, and dispassionate discussion. Knight’s concept of “government by discussion” sought to offer a theory of collective decision-making that could be reconciled to the liberal principle of free and open intellectual exchange. Doing so required grappling with the problem of individual prejudice, which he correctly saw as destructive to the very same exchange. Thus the heart of Knight’s project entailed an exploration of ways in which intelligent assessment and judgment could be used to elevate discussion above its baser tendencies.

    At some point prior to his visit, Knight began sketching out a series of lectures on “Intelligence and Democratic Action” that applied his framework to a range of contemporary issues. Racial segregation was among them, and Knight intended to tackle both its harmful effects upon the public discourse and its fostering of unjust and discriminatory behavior.

    The political situation in Virginia presented a complication for Knight’s chosen topic, as the state’s governing class had recently mobilized behind Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.’s call for “Massive Resistance” to Brown v. Board of Education. The Byrd machine’s Massive Resistance laws entailed a series of legislatively enacted triggers that would force the state-mandated closing of public schools facing integration – a scenario that became reality in the fall of 1958. With this threat already on the horizon in 1957, a concerned Knight asked Buchanan if his planned lecture in favor of integration would encounter resistance of its own at the University of Virginia.

    Buchanan responded on October 24, 1957 in a short letter intended to alleviate Knight’s trepidation. Noting that the UVA faculty exhibited a full range of opinion from the segregationist Citizens Council organization to the NAACP, Buchanan assured his mentor that “there should be no cause for concern about freedom of expression on the whole problem.” Knight proceeded with his lecture as planned in the spring of 1958, using the occasion to strongly condemn segregation:

    “Equality before the law means that there is equal opportunity for everyone to find or make his own place in society. This ideal was dishonored in the breach rather than honored in the observance for some time into the age of liberalism, notably by this country in the matter of racial discrimination. We were from a generation to a century behind the main civilized world in getting rid of slavery nominally based on race, but actually a caste distinction, and then had to do it by one of the most terrible wars in history. We still do not allow equal legal treatment, but discriminate on the fictitious ground of any supposed trace of alien racial blood.”

    The Buchanan-Knight exchange of 1957 is interesting for another reason though as it provides a glimpse into Buchanan’s own grappling with the problem of Massive Resistance. Buchanan’s known statements on the subject of segregation, stretching from the late 1940s to the 1980s, consistently express his own opposition to the institution. In accordance with his constitutional philosophy though, he was deeply concerned about the implications of the political process through which the end of this institution could be achieved.

    Buchanan indicated as much in the letter to Knight, reflecting on the then-recent Little Rock school crisis of September 1957. Wary of the implications of this event for federalism, he expressed a concern that “advisers to Eisenhower could have thought that his dispatching of troops to Little Rock would be helpful.” This brief passage mirrored comments that Buchanan would make about Little Rock few weeks later, expressing a constitutional concern “that considerations of presumed national interest will outweigh considerations of decentralization in any decisive action of the current national administration.” An open collision between officials at two distinct levels of the federalist system of government, he warned, had the potential to inflame rather than ameliorate the problem they sought to address.

    Nancy MacLean cites this passage from Buchanan’s letter, stripped of the context of its narrow constitutional concerns, to suggest his intellectual kinship with James J. Kilpatrick, one of the most rabidly segregationist journalists in the entire south. MacLean’s asserted links to Kilpatrick are specious nonsense, and likely the result of her misinterpreting a typographical error in another secondary source that she consulted. Equally telling though is that she inserted this speculative Kilpatrick connection by deleting another reporter that Buchanan actually specified in the letter. In the very next line of the letter to Knight, Buchanan writes “Arthur Krock of the [New York] Times has been good on all this.”

    The passage is a fascinating and under-explored clue, as it associates Buchanan not with the segregationist partisans of the Richmond News-Leader but with the mainstream political analysis of the country’s paper of record. While the passage is too short on detail to pinpoint which article by Krock (the Times’ Washington bureau chief) that Buchanan had in mind, much can be gleaned from his coverage of the Little Rock crisis and its aftermath.

    Krock, it turns out, approached Little Rock from a position of caution in the political center, not the segregationist extremes of Kilpatrick as MacLean would have her readers believe. Krock summarized the issue in his column on September 15 as a case of southern Democratic intransigence on segregation, exacerbated by Gov. Orval Faubus’ confrontational stance and Eisenhower’s equally forceful response. As he wrote:

    “The revived resistance in the South to judicial orders against the various forms of Negro segregation by local law has again brought into national political prominence the deepest and most fundamental split in the Democratic party. It is what the Old Man of the Sea was to Sindbad the Sailor on the Fifth Voyage – an unbearable encumbrance.

    Sindbad eventually was able to rid himself of his burden, and Democratic leaders hoped that with the passage of the moderate Civil Rights Act of 1957 they had at least eased theirs. But the action of Governor Faubus of Arkansas, who employed the National Guard to prevent the integration of a high school that a Federal court had ordered without further delay, and the violent outbreaks in Tennessee and Alabama when school integration was accomplished or attempted, demonstrated painfully to the Democratic party that still on its back is its particular Old Man of the Sea.”

    The column concludes with an appeal to “Moderate statesmanship in the Federal Government, and in the states” to effect a solution to school segregation, while warning that the alternative implied a political disaster for the Democrats in which its segregationist southern wing might bolt from the 1960 nominating convention (much as they did with the Dixiecrat movement of 1948).

    Krock’s related articles explored similar themes, including a September 29th column that analyzed the political repercussions of Little Rock for other southern states now that military deployment was on the table:

    “The Democrats are deeply divided over almost every phase of the racial issue, and events in the next two years may widen and further embitter this division. The Republicans can point to the facts that a Republican President was the first since Reconstruction successfully to urge civil rights legislation, and the President who countered negative force by a Democratic Governor with Federal positive force to effect public school integration. The Democrats can reply that the bill was passed by a Democratic Congress, and both factions, though with different reactions, can assail the use of ‘Federal troops’ and ‘bayonets.'”

    If Buchanan had any specific column by Krock in mind beyond his general reporting, a likely candidate appears in his report from September 17, which related the Little Rock episode to Massive Resistance in Virginia. Here Krock expressed misgivings that Arkansas may be “only a mild beginning of what may come in other states that were members of the Confederacy.” Citing the Virginia laws that aimed to answer integration with school closures, he warned of another impending “calamitous showdown of state resistance – through procedures Faubus has abjured – to school integration by the Federal judicial power.”

    “[T]he Virginia law provides that the Governor shall close [the integrated] school. Governor Stanley has told friends he will go to jail rather than disobey this command of state law. And if the controversy reaches this stage, not only will integration be sharply set back in Virginia and other states, but there is no visible legal means wherewith the Legislature can be compelled by the Federal power to appropriate school funds.”

    Krock presented this outcome as a worst-case scenario, inflamed by segregationist intransigence of state officials who would risk being taken into custody by a federal marshal and “carrying the seeds of disaster to the general welfare.”

    Note that while the Times reporter’s argument pleaded moderation in the actions of both parties, his tone also strongly condemned the Massive Resisters – a point he reiterated a few weeks later on October 8 when he welcomed signs of a tiny but crucial “crack in Virginia’s stone wall” against integration. That week, a breakaway group of former Byrd loyalists in the Old Dominion had hinted their acquiescence to the inevitability of Brown, and subtly shifted their efforts to slowing the pace of its enforcement rather than provoking the constitutional confrontation desired by Byrd and Stanley. The crack, portended in the statements of gubernatorial candidate J. Lindsay Almond, was only slight at the time. Krock’s analysis nonetheless correctly anticipated the break in the Byrd machine that actually occurred on Almond’s watch in early 1959 with the abandonment of the Massive Resistance laws in the face of court orders striking them down.

    Whether Buchanan had these specific comments in mind when commending Krock’s reporting to Knight is necessarily speculative, but the preponderance of evidence suggests the likelihood. Krock and Buchanan appear to have shared a belief that forcing a state-federal collision was politically and constitutionally destructive, yet both also faulted the Massive Resisters for sowing the seeds of this collision.

    In another letter written to Broadus Mitchell in 1960 (also cited by MacLean, but with similarly misleading contextualization), Buchanan credited UVA president Colgate Darden for breaking with Byrd, his former political mentor, and publicly denouncing the school closure laws during the 1959 school crisis. In Buchanan’s telling, this “stand against the more reactionary elements of the state” – a clear and disparaging reference to the Massive Resisters – represented a “proper role in influencing public opinion in a responsible and reasonable manner.” Furthermore in Buchanan’s telling, this stance against the reactionaries represented a form of political intervention “of which I know Frank Knight would approve.”

    The timing of Buchanan’s comments is telling, as a few months prior he had just edited and published Knight’s lectures from 1958, including his call for integration that is excerpted above, as a standalone book. The title of that book not only captured Knight’s theory of democratic governance. It also shared a turn of phrase from the closing paragraph of Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter’s own 1959 article on school vouchers that has been at the center of the MacLean controversy for the past year. He titled it “Intelligence and Democratic Action.”

    The problem with historical arguments from silence

    Posted By on August 3, 2018

    Historical arguments from silence are a common feature of academic work. Originally a means of dealing with historical subjects where a weak or missing evidentiary record makes direct examination of an event impossible, arguments from silence instead draw inferences from what is not said or not recorded. For example, if a historical document neglects to mention another well known and verified event that happened around the same time it was written, certain inferences may be made about the author’s likelihood of capturing that event or, alternatively, biases as a witness given the oversight. Carefully deployed, silence can be a tool of necessity in interpreting a subject where records are deficient for any number of reasons, be they accidental loss, destruction, or even the byproduct of biases in the selection of material for preservation

    Arguments from silence are accordingly common in areas of history where records are sparse. They’re also a staple line of argument in fields that utilize various iterations of critical theory to interpret the past, usually operating under the not-unfounded assumption that recorded attestations of the condition of marginalized persons (usually on lines of race, class, or gender) are less likely to have survived to the present day. This is a challenge faced by any historian, whether working in critical theory or not. But I would also argue that critical theorists are especially prone to pushing historical arguments from silence too far, effectively supplanting observed evidentiary gaps from the past with imported political ideologies from the present day.

    A closely related problem with constructing historical arguments from silence is the tactic’s tendency to heighten the epistemic biases of the historian who deploys it. Put another way, a finding of silence itself is a perceived and observational characteristic. It entails the review of existing historical materials and identifying a gap, by inference, of content that one might expect to find. In making an inferential claim from silence, a simultaneous assumption is made about the finality of the extant state of historical records. In other words, when a historian infers a strong claim about a historical figure’s actions, beliefs, or awareness from “silence” – that is to say from an omission of expected references and content in available records – she is also necessarily implying that those records encompass a representative range of that figure’s known actions, beliefs, and comments from the time period in question.

    There’s a great risk at play here in pressing an argument from perceived silence. All it takes to break that silence is a new and previously unaccounted record coming to light containing alternative or contradictory information.

    Unfortunately, many scholars invest too heavily in arguments constructed from the perceived silence of their subjects, as ascertained by viewing available materials. Doing so sets an argument up for refutation upon the discovery of contradictory information that existed outside of the scope of the originally perceived silence. An honest scholar might respond to this occurrence by legitimately changing her mind to account for the new evidence. But that’s often not what happens.

    Instead, when new primary source evidence comes to light, rather than modify their views, an alarming number of academics ignore it, resist it, downplay it, or denigrate it as “faux.” They then double down on the original argument from silence, as if nothing had changed.

    I have witnessed this pattern too many times to count, but a few examples serve to illustrate. The recent controversy over economist James M. Buchanan and segregation provides textbook case. Several scholars formed their initial impressions of Buchanan by reading Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains and assuming, largely on account of her prior scholarly “reputation” and her own claims of novelty in accessing Buchanan’s papers, that her study contained a thorough and comprehensive examination of the available source materials. As MacLean’s individual claims have been called into question (including by my own work), a number of scholars who agreed with her initial conclusions have adopted their own arguments from silence – usually to portray Buchanan as complicit in the segregationist Massive Resistance movement of 1950s Virginia.

    Thus we are told that Buchanan “failed to condemn” segregation, or that he allowed his ideas to be “used” by segregationists and is therefore morally culpable for those uses. In each case, the “evidence” for the charge is a perceived silence – the alleged absence of Buchanan saying or doing anything that would contradict the segregationist political class of the era. In the past week or so, several academics who are critical of Buchanan’s theories have explicitly adopted this “argument from silence” approach, among them the economic historians Peter Temin, Sandy Darity, and Trevon Logan.

    The problem with the perceived silence around Buchanan is it is still highly dependent upon MacLean’s own faulty historical work. These scholars are essentially assuming that MacLean did a comprehensive sweep of Buchanan’s materials and, equally important, made a faithful representation of their contents in her book. Except this isn’t the case at all. MacLean was not comprehensive – she actually missed dozens of directly pertinent archival collections and hundreds of pages of additional evidence. She also misinterpreted much of the evidence she did have – sometimes badly – and severely inflated the originality of her work in an allegedly “secret” archive that was in fact already being prepared for professional cataloging and release after Buchanan’s death. I’ll leave it to readers to search this blog if interested in specific examples, or to evaluate them in a comprehensive account here. Briefly summarized, while Buchanan’s entry into the segregation debate was infrequent given its distance from his own scholarly focus and expertise, it was also (a) far from silent and (b) generally in the opposite direction of anything MacLean claims about him.

    So what is a scholar to do after appealing to Buchanan’s perceived silence, only to encounter evidence that this perception was mistaken? Unfortunately the aforementioned pattern is starting to take root: double down on the original claim of silence, all while ignoring or – worse – attacking and dismissing counter-evidence that MacLean missed in her original assessment.

    Curiously, this exact same pattern played out several years ago in another area of direct pertinence to my work – the history of Abraham Lincoln’s involvement in the colonization of freed slaves. A longstanding historical consensus on the colonization topic took the form of a classic argument from silence: Since Lincoln did not publicly mention colonization in his known statements and speeches after January 1, 1863, the consensus view assumed that he dropped this policy from his administration’s agenda.

    Except Lincoln didn’t actually drop colonization after January 1, 1863. He moved it into the diplomatic back channels of the State Department, where it enjoyed some insulation from the political graft and corruption that plagued the program over the preceding year. This move, the subject of several of my published works (see here), removed the program from public view while generating hundreds of pages of forgotten records on colonization negotiations over next 2 years. Very little of that evidence was known before I started digging it up with a couple of other scholars in the mid-2000s – mainly by looking in archival sources that had never really been thought of or searched before. After all, Lincoln is the most scrutinized president in American history so surely the major collections of materials from his life and presidency are known and accounted for. It turns out that they weren’t though, and in fact there are pertinent records spread out across the consular records of the State Department and the archival holdings of several foreign countries in the former British, Dutch, and Danish Caribbean empires. Due to simple previously unaccounted findings of this nature, Lincoln suddenly wasn’t silent after all, and historians since then have had to revise a longstanding assumption about his colonization programs. But as always, there’s an incorrigible segment of the profession that’s wedded to the older, earlier argument from silence. Rather than accommodate new findings and concede the earlier argument from silence was wrong, they opt to cling to the original argument from silence. They dismiss, ignore, or denigrate the new evidence.

    And thus we arrive at a dispute where one side simply isn’t interested in engaging with material that might alter its position. In asserting “silence” they’re really just asserting an appeal to stature of obsolescent arguments and the personal authority of those who made them.